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Singapore’s ‘city brain’ project is groundbreaking -- but what about privacy?

Matt Hamblen | Dec. 13, 2016
Aggregating data on traffic, weather, government and elder services aims to make citizens' lives better -- but potentially less private

Jacqueline Poh is the new CEO of the Government Technology Agency for Singapore, an umbrella agency set up to deploy a wide range of digital services, infrastructure and applications.

Poh acknowledges that connectivity between disparate sensors across the city will create a federated platform, but it is "quite clear it won't be personal data." Personal data will be anonymized, she says.

jacqueline poh
Jacqueline Poh

The lessons Singapore learns in its journey toward becoming a smart city with a city brain while protecting privacy will be "exportable to other countries," Poh adds. "We're not the only country with urban density or the elderly. These are international problems not unique to Singapore. We are at the beginning of a smart city journey."

Gabriel Lim, the CEO of the new Singapore Info-communications Media Development Authority, says Singapore citizens haven't raised concerns about data privacy because they genuinely trust the government. "The government has consistently shown that its job is to serve the people first, and for 51 years we have delivered on that. We've forged a bond," he says. The government has "stood by its citizens to get through difficult times" including the SARS outbreak, the Asian financial crisis and terrorist scares of the past 15 years, Lim says.

Singapore as a smart city model

It may be early on, but Singapore already gets high marks from analysts for its smart city initiatives.

Using a centralized city brain is really the best approach, says Zeus Kerravala, principal analyst at ZK Research. "If you build transit smart systems independently and separate from others, you don't get the advantages. Connectivity of data is where the 'smart' comes from. There's a lot to consider, but ultimately it is much more cost-effective to do it in a centralized way than to build network after network."

That's the tech challenge cities face in the U.S. Many have separate governing authorities for rail and bus, and even discrete water and sewer jurisdictions and electric utilities, each with its own bureaucracy that might, or might not, cooperate with a mayor and city council in trying to aggregate and coordinate data. Singapore enjoys a single national and city government with a single parliament and a prime minister, so there are no state legislatures or county councils that can bog down the planning and approval process.

Partly because of the layers of public bureaucracy in the U.S., Kerravala calls the U.S. a "laggard" in the smart city global movement. But with the looming demands many cities face with limited water and food resources and the crunch on transportation infrastructure, not to mention the threat of natural disasters and terrorist attacks, a city brain approach could offer cities insights into data patterns and even a modicum of hope for finding answers to the big problems looming in the future.

"The smart city movement globally is a huge deal," Kerravala says, and the city brain is at the heart of that. "Ultimately, cities need some kind of city brain or a common platform where the concept is a centralized core system."


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